Predetermining Outcomes

June 8, 2016

It has been my experience that someone who attempts to frame an opposing view in a dishonest, distorted manner has no intention of engaging in an honest, informative debate.

Exhibit A:

Mayor John Tory’s opening statement at yesterday’s city council meeting on Toronto’s long-term fiscal plan of action.

There are people who will say that we don’t have any problem with respect to expenditures, and my answer to that would only be to say that anybody who’s part of any multi-billion dollar organization that says they’ve found every single efficiency that there is to be found is either ill-informed or is trying to mislead.

The thing is, I’ve never heard anybody, inside or outside of the multi-billion dollar organization that is the city of Toronto, say anything remotely like that. How could they with a straight face? A quick glance in any direction will turn up misspent money and cost overruns. Renovations of Union Station, Nathan Phillips Square. The Yonge-University-Spadina subway extension. The **cough, cough** Scarborough subway extension. Bunny suits and retirement parties. Remember those? Oldies but goodies.

It would be foolish to suggest none of that matters. That’s why very few people I know have ever said such a thing. texaschainsawmassacreThat’s not what this debate is about, no matter how much the mayor would like you to think it is.

What this city manager has been telling Mayor Tory, like the city manager before him said, like the KPMG report back in 2012 concluded, all of them, is that the city is pretty tightly run already, and much more cutting of budgets finding efficiencies will begin to negatively impact the delivery of services and programs. More to this particular aspect of the debate, City Manager Peter Wallace has been emphasizing the point that no amount of further efficiencies or selling off of city assets alone will generate the necessary revenue to a) continue funding the day-to-day operating budget, and b) or be enough to build the new infrastructure we want/require and rebuild the state of good repair of infrastructure we already have. We have to have the revenue tools discussion, boys and girls.

What the mayor heard, however, came straight out of a game of broken telephone. What do you mean there’s no more efficiencies to be found? (That’s not what I said.) What do you mean selling off city owned assets won’t generate revenue? (Again, that’s not what I said. Nowhere in my report did I write that.)

Mayor Tory has acknowledged that we will have to have an “honest” discussion about revenue tools. “I’m glad revenue tools are on the table,” admitted his budget chief, Councillor Gary Crawford. But…But…

The city must maintain a fundamental focus on responsible and effect expense management…We must continue to explore efficiencies and cost reduction in order to create resources for other investment opportunities…Once we get those correct, once we look at those, I think we can have the discussion on revenues.

To suggest that we have found everything is absolutely not responsible.

Again, nobody has ever suggested such a thing. Mayor Tory and his council allies are determined to distort the terms of this debate while at the same time attempting to establish impossible to meet standards in order to put off any sort of serious discussion about revenue tools. actingNo stone will be left unturned! No efficiency unwrung! This city must be a perfectly oiled, flawlessly operating machine. Until such a time – “Once we get those correct,” in the words of the budget chief – there will be no talk of new revenue tools.

At least, no serious discussion. We’ll get the pretense of a serious discussion, the theatre of an informed, honest debate. Mayor Tory will give the impression of earnestly grappling with our fiscal future. It’ll be just an act, though. Talk of good intentions masking no intention whatsoever to move beyond his preconceived, ideologically hidebound notions of how government should work. His own political rigidity reflected in how he’s attempting to paint opposing views in stark, rigid terms.

predictingly submitted by Cityslikr


Physics Lesson

January 19, 2016

Think budgeting in this city has evolved under John Tory, out and up from the morass of political sloganeering and accounting sorcery of the Ford administration? clownsinavolkswagenThink again, mes amis. Here’s a pre-masticated chunk for you to chew on.

In the rate supported solid waste budget already approved in December by city council, there was a savings of a little over $2 million with the elimination of the city rebate for those XL garbage bins some households have. You know, the ones the size of a fucking Volkswagen. A family of 7 clowns could comfortably live inside one. City staff thought maybe we shouldn’t be subsidizing people to throw away a lot of garbage that costs all of us to haul away and store in landfills especially since it seems that those with XL garbage cans recycle and green bin their organics less than others.

Council agreed. But now, with a submission to committee yesterday, the budget chair, Councillor Gary Crawford (presumably with Mayor Tory’s blessing) headscratcherwants that $2.23 million XL garbage bin rebate “reinstated”. This, while they’re raiding reserve funds, demanding $5 million more from the TTC and not funding about 60% of the promises and pledges council and the mayor have made. The budget chair wants to remove $2.23 million from the proposed operating budget back to rebate XL garbage bin users. (h/t to Matt Elliott for explaining the nuanced dance of rate and tax supported budgets.)

Maybe it’s simply being used as a bargaining chip, to be given up during the horse-trading that’s going to only intensify between now and mid-February when city council finalizes this budget. Still. It seems impossibly, I don’t know, short-sighted and… dumb. There’s not a word in my arsenal I can summon to describe it.

I get that XL garbage bins are used in multiunit residences, like rooming houses for example. Surely though, we have the technology to determine between those and single family homes using this type of receptacle, and can adjust the rebates accordingly. Because, right now, in 2016, there’s no way single families shouldn’t be paying full cost for the use of XL garbage bins. None. Zip. aimlesslyForget about it.

It’s a tiny, tiny matter in the bigger $11 billion picture of the 2016 budget for sure but it just epitomizes for me the amorphous direction of this administration, two budgets into its term now. Keeping taxes low is the only touchstone, exactly like the Ford years, with big promises of improvements to our quality of life but woefully short on the follow through. Outside of that (and keeping talk of new sources of revenue at bay), anything goes. Just meet that property tax rate increase cap, and it’s all good.

Actually, what it feels like, and forgive me the sports analogy here, is a baseball manager’s long, deliberate walk from the dugout toward the mound, taking his time to make sure the bullpen arms are good and ready to jump in and offer immediate relief. Mayor Tory’s stalling, waiting, hoping for money to start flowing in to the city’s coffers from senior levels of government, fullclosetespecially the feds who seem itching to start spreading infrastructure money around in order to help out the teetering economy. If he can just string things out a little bit longer, keep things duct taped together for one more budget cycle, until the cavalry arrives…

That would be welcome, of course, and long overdue. But it isn’t realistic to think either Queen’s Park or Ottawa is going to fill our every need, is it? Should they? Yes, they should be redirecting money back to cities on things municipalities should never have been paying for off of the property tax base in the first place including affordable housing and a transit system that provides a regional service. Arguably though, we aren’t even properly funding the things we should be paying for, like parks, planning and libraries, off the top of my head, forcing ourselves to make hard choices about need-to-have versus nice-to-haves through our collective refusal to reach a little deeper into our own pockets.

John Tory promised to bring a more clear-headed, rational, reasonable way of doing things to City Hall. We gave him a mulligan on his first budget, as we tend to do to most new mayors, as they are inheriting somebody else’s work in progress, let’s call it.bulldurham Second time around, however, we’re expecting a little more ownership, a sense of purpose, a manifestation of a mandate.

What’s on offer right now from Team Tory is a black hole, sucking the operation of this city into it. A patchwork of cuts here, additions there, amounting to little more than numbers summing up to zero for no other seeming purpose than because they have to. Governance entropy, waiting, fingers crossed, for an injection of life and energy from somewhere out there in the cosmos.

nonevently submitted by Cityslikr


There’s Really Nothing Up His Sleeve

January 21, 2015

Yesterday’s 2015 budget launch left me feeling a little discombobulated. That sense you get after watching a magician try and pull the wool over your eyes for a couple hours. magicactFlim-flammed, bamboozled even.

It was different than the budgetary voodoo Rob Ford attempted while he was mayor. Trust me, folks. This won’t hurt a bit. Those aren’t service cuts. We call them ‘adjustments’.

No. Mayor John Tory’s first kick at the can was all about, what did he repeatedly call it? “The largest investment in service improvements in recent history.”

And credit where credit’s due.

Both public transit and Shelter, Support and Housing (or, at least, shelter and support) received nice bumps in spending, the TTC especially so. It will see service restored to 2010 levels. “Stabilizing of transit,” City Manager Joe Pennachetti called it. misdirectionA step forward in order to be running on the spot.

In total, it’s about a $1.8 billion increase in spending from last year’s operating budget, leaving some to call it ‘left-leaning’.

But here’s the thing. It’s not immediately obvious where the money is coming from to pay for that spending. In order to balance the operating side of the budget (which, I’ll remind everyone again, it is provincially mandated for municipalities to balance their operating budgets), the city has to come up with the revenue to the penny. $11.4 billion spent. $11.4 billion must be found in revenue.

This staff recommended budget proposes a below-the-rate-of-inflation property tax increase. So it doesn’t cover the inflation-adjusted cost of the delivering of services and programs. That means, in effect, a reduction in the money available for those services and programs. (Here, let Councillor Gord Perks explain it for you. Or Neville Park. Or Alex Mazer.)

Not to mention Mayor Tory’s directive to departments to find 2% efficiencies and city staff’s demand that department’s also ‘absorb the inflation’. nothingupmysleeveThis, despite the fact, that the city manager, as he was heading for the exit last spring before mayor-elect John Tory convinced him to stay for one more budget cycle a few months later, told us there was no more gravy to be found, no more fat to be trimmed. Apparently, retirement wasn’t the only thing Mr. Pennachetti reconsidered.

It’s a little of the ol’ robbing Peter to pay Paul. You want improved transit and more shelter space? Well somebody’s got to pay for it, and don’t expect it to be property owners. The pie got bigger but the slices became a little more uneven.

While the budget was a little tax-shy, let’s call it, it certainly embraced user fees. There’s an increase of $14 million in unidentified ones in the document right now. Plus, a good chunk of the TTC improvements this year will be covered by the proposed fare increase, one campaign pledge Mayor Tory seemed comfortable breaking.gobbluth

On the other hand, drivers are getting the Gardiner Expressway repaired 8 years earlier than scheduled to the tune of nearly half a billion dollars in the capital budget with nary a word about having to chip in a little more to cover the costs. The roughly $60 million the Vehicle Registration Tax once brought into city coffers multiplied by those 8 years would’ve more than covered those costs. Apparently some users are more preferred than others, even in John Tory’s Toronto.

A couple glaring holes still stand between the city and a truly balanced budget. There’s the $86 million one, created when the province decided to end the practice of pooling payments to Toronto to help pay for many mandated social services. Not to worry, the city’s Chief Financial Officer, Robert Rossini, excitedly told us yesterday, a big announcement was coming, talks had been very productive with the province about settling that amount. Everything’s under control.

Turns out, the big announcement seems to be a $200 million line of credit extended to the city from Queen’s Park, including market rate interest charges. swordboxOr what some of us might consider a deferred tax increase or user fee. Line up that can so we can kick it down the road a bit.

The other shoe dangling there, waiting to drop is the police budget. While the staff recommending a flatlining of it — I know, I know. That kind of thing always happens. And by always, I mean almost never – the city and the Toronto Police Services are currently negotiating a new collective agreement which almost always results in pay increases for the police. Budget Chair Gary Crawford assures us that money has been set aside for that contingency. How much? He won’t say. (Why would he as it might tip the city’s hand in terms of the ongoing negotiations.)

But as Ben Spurr pointed out in NOW, over the past 10 years, the police budget has gone up some $241 million. So it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect at least a $20-$30 million bump this year. But again, don’t worry. Everything’s under control. Even after the $86 million, there’s still over $100 million on that line of credit from the province.

Look. It’s not a terrible, terrible budget. Even Councillor Gord Perks says so. rockyandbullwinkleThere is a big investment in vital needs of the city. But Mayor Tory is still trying to pretend these things can happen magically, without having to say the word ‘taxes’ above a whisper. He’s putting a glossy patina on the Rob Ford maxim of governance. Sure you can have things. And we can get somebody else to pay for them.

It’s fundamentally dishonest and only serves to put off the inevitable, leaving the mess for somebody else to clean up.

unmesmerizedly submitted by Cityslikr